Monday, March 12, 2012

Review :: Reality is Broken

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
By Jane McGonigal

In this book's penultimate chapter, "Saving the Real World Together," Jane McGonigal describes a massively multiplayer game aimed at forecasting trends called World Without Oil. In this game, participants are given a scenario: The world has hit Peak Oil; the gap between global supply and demand has widened; and no other energy source is on the horizon. What will happen?

McGonigal, who is Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, was the participation architect for this project. Eventually 2000 online gamers from all walks of life participated in developing scenarios for six weeks. McGonigal reports that two main strategies emerged: reducing demand or competing more aggressively for available supply. And what gives her hope is that these gamers, though they first gravitated toward strategy #2, eventually stabilized on strategy #1. "It was the proof-of-concept game that convinced me we can really save the real world with the right kind of game. It's the project that inspired me to define my biggest hope for the future: that a game developer would soon be worthy of the Nobel Prize" (p.312).

In this scenario, and this quote, we see both the promise and the fundamental problem of the book.

First, the promise. As McGonigal argues throughout the book, games do certain things for us. They "optimize human experience ... help us do amazing things together, and ... enable lasting engagement" (p.346). They "increase self-motivation, provoke interest and creativity, and help us work at the very edge of our abilities" (p.346). They put us in a positive mood; make our (in-game) work more satisfying and productive; help us see failure as positive feedback that gives us a better shot at reasonable goals; make us more social; and put our efforts in context on epic scale (p.346). They help us to get out more and interact with strangers (p.347). Harnessing their potential can result in more wins, more collaboration, and more foresight to apply to "planetary-scale problems"(p.348). McGonigal supplies plenty of examples of each of these lessons.

And she also describes the problems with reality as compared to games:
Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It's unproductive, and hopeless. It's disconnected, and trivial. It's hard to get into. It's pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It's hard to swallow. It's unsustainable. It's unambitious. It's disorganized and divided. It's stuck in the present. (p.348)
But, she adds, reality is better than games, since we live here and can change it. She urges us to apply game dynamics, game problem-solving, and game engagement to reality: "Life is hard, and games make it better" (p.349). And throughout the book, she gives examples of how applying game principles to real-world problems can do exactly that. McGonigal has an encyclopedic knowledge of games and game strategies, and it was a pleasure seeing how she applies this mastery to various problems.

So that's the promise. Where's the problem?

Let's go back to this statement about reality: "It's disorganized and divided." All true. Compare the beautiful simplicity of a game - for instance, the console game I most recently played, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - with real life. The game is well delineated, with a clear goal and a clear, guided set of steps to reach it. You have a mission, you have some leeway to achieve it, but you also have a clear set of progress indicators. Similarly, McGonigal's games provide clear parameters, goals, and feedback mechanisms. Sometimes the goal is to get out of the house, wear a costume, and film yourself dancing in public places; sometimes it's to collaborate with a global community to "discover" and play an ancient Olympic sport; sometimes it's to solve the problem of Peak Oil. In all cases, you know your mission and your problem is figuring out how to achieve it. Gaming makes reality better—by ordering it, clarifying it, giving you the parameters for engaging with it. The feedback loop is there to give you a thrill when you pass milestones.

That thrill? It's the thrill of obedience.

Here's the thing. In a game like World Without Oil, the players are given specific parameters. The world has hit Peak Oil; the gap between global supply and demand has widened; and no other energy source is on the horizon. These are unquestionable. In reality, we have to grapple with many more parameters, and many parties may dispute each parameter. Furthermore, if even one party refuses to accept a premise or parameter, the others are affected by this dynamic. Reality is indeed "disorganized and divided" because no one party can assert a set of premises by fiat.

To put it another way, gamifying reality means solving the problem of politics and persuasion by wishing it away; it makes life better by replacing the hardest problems, the problems of agreement, with the much easier problems of achieving goals given specific parameters. We've been here before.

Whether we're tackling the problem of Peak Oil or simply trying to get introverts to mingle and act more like extroverts (pp.166, 197), the problem is a given. People get a thrill from acting in unison and solving a common, clearly defined problem under a well-defined set of rules—especially the sort of people who like to solve word puzzles and who excel on the SAT. But there's a vast gulf between a 1600 on the SAT and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and unfortunately this book doesn't address that gulf, nor does it seem to even be aware of it.

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